True Wit

Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Criticism” (1711) contains the couplet that’s recently been tantalizing me:
True Wit is Nature to advantage dressed
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.

Those Age of Enlightenment writers–Pope, Dryden, Addison and Steele–so well educated in Greek and Latin, are scarcely a model for modern prose. That role has been taken by British writers we still read outside the academy: Jane Austen, for instance, who wrote almost a century later, and Dickens, later by 130 years, with a much larger range of humankind and levels of speech at his command. But when I think about our contemporary American prose (as I do a lot these days), I’m struck by how lax and chatty it’s become. The saucy Twitters printed every day in our newspaper are largely bland, lacking sparkle and wit. Interesting only because of the notoriety of those who send them out into the flagrant air.

Dickens’ first true novel, Oliver Twist (1838), has recently kept me company on CD while I do my nightly yoga. A master of humor–meaning characters wracked by one of the ancient Greek humors of phlegm, blood and black and yellow bile–Dickens attaches minor characters to his plot who every time they appear respond with a similar tag phrase: “Or I’ll eat my head,” for instance. No, this is not one of Goya’s terrors of war, looming with open mouth above a terrified populace. Nor is it a figure from Dutch or English “kitchen” art with food including head cheese strewn across tables and floor where dogs, babies, swains and nurse maids all lounge and grovel. It’s simply an imprecation reduced to inanity by repetition as it occurs in the midst of the most unexpected trysts or hold-ups. Someone who can cry, “Or I’ll eat my head” while a tender reconciliation is going on can’t be entirely right in the head. And we soon know it, smile at Mr. Grimwig’s jack-in-the-box pop-up, and eventually marvel at how Dickens undermines the sentimentality of his plots with nature, untrue to wit and distinctly disadvantage dressed.

It’s not that I aspire to such wit, well maybe I do, but I recognize my limitations. After all, I grew up in a household dominated by two entirely different modes of speech, neither particularly witty: my father’s highly emotional, Italian-laced English, and my mother’s spare Germanic parings. Listening to Renee Fleming recently as she sang a trembling, swooning aria, I realized that my father’s English yearned toward the swoop and vibrato of 19th century Italian opera, which he’d grown up listening to on records. My mother, in almost constant motion except when she lay down for her daily, two-hour nap, used language as points of order and command. There was no luxuriating in pun or excess.

Yet, I went to school to English and American literature for years and years. When I hear American wit in my head, it’s almost always e e cummings or Robert Frost. Frost for his laconic yet immensely controlled rhythms, rhymes, and inversions, and cummings for out and out wild pairings: here’s a stanza from “anyone lived in a pretty how town”

when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone’s any was all to her

Almost all single-syllable English words, yet by wit advantaged into colloquy never before heard on land or sea. Almost singable on this dreary April morning edging into May.

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